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Raptors compile a better record without Kawhi Leonard

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TORONTO — It is probably worth leaving a few glasses of water in the vicinity of Nick Nurse these days, just to see if he wanders by and turns them into wine.

For his latest act, the Toronto Raptors coach found out Monday evening that centre Serge Ibaka would be out of the lineup with an illness. With Marc Gasol already absent with a bum hamstring, that left the Raptors without their top two big men against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Karl-Anthony Towns, a seven-footer who can shoot. Nurse opted to start Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the centre spot, surrendering about six inches and 40 pounds to Towns.

It seemed like quite the mismatch. As one foolish writer noted on Twitter before the game: “Hide your children.” (It was me. Side note: Never tweet.)

Hollis-Jefferson battled Towns to a draw, and after a first half in which the Raptors threw the ball all over Scotiabank Arena and lacked defensive cohesiveness, they gathered themselves after halftime and seized control. The resulting 137-126 victory was the 15th in a row for the Raptors, extending their franchise record.

For some reason this is also being touted as a record for a Canadian team, so Raptors fans can take solace in the fact that they have finally surpassed the Canadiens and Stampeders in that regard. It has been a long time coming.

We are long past the point where there is much new to say about what these Raptors have been doing this year. The win streak has provided some focus, and an accomplishment to be celebrated, but even if they had dropped a game in there somewhere what they would doing this season would be no less remarkable.

They are 40-14, a franchise record through 54 games, and they have done this while six of their top seven rotation players have each missed at least 10 games. That they have compiled a better record so far than last season, despite having lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency, takes this into the realm of the unthinkable.

Leonard was a remarkable force, a player unlike any the Raptors had ever had, as was evident from the moment he played here and particularly during the march to the title. You just don’t lose a player of that calibre in the NBA and carry on without much of a blip. It is madness.

And yet, here they are. The Raptors had a Vegas win total of 46.5 before the season began, reflecting a 12-game drop off the pace of their championship year, and they could go into the All-Star break with 41 wins.

As I say: Madness.

After the win over the Timberwolves on Monday, Nurse was asked whether the run they have been on has created a confidence that they can throw any five guys out there and hope to still win.


Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse and guard Fred VanVleet (23) watch play against Chicago Bulls in the first half at Scotiabank Arena.

Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY

The coach said he didn’t know about that. “I think we think we can win, right?,” Nurse said. He said his players know that they need to go out and give a great effort. “I think they’ll do that most nights.” That is especially true on the defensive end, where the rotating cast of Raptors has somehow compiled the NBA’s second-best defensive rating.

Some of that is almost certainly carried over from last year’s playoff run, when the team learned the importance of playing all-out defence every night. But Nurse also said before the game that his team simply has a much bigger defensive toolbox than they did at this time last season.

They started last year preaching man-to-man defensive fundamentals, and they have been adding schemes and wrinkles ever since. The battle station is fully operational, as it were.

“They come out here, and they take it to you,” Nurse said.

Now is the part of the column where we add the caveats. No one knows how this will work in the playoffs, where any of the top teams in the East could create matchup problems for the Raptors, a franchise that knows all too well that regular-season success does not necessarily portend springtime joy. It was just two years ago that a transformed Raptors offence led to a franchise record in wins, and then the postseason arrived and LeBron James hoofed them right in the biscuits.


Minnesota Timberwolves centre Karl-Anthony Towns (32) knocks the ball away from Toronto Raptors forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (4) in the second half at Scotiabank Arena.

Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY

But this team seems too cagey and resilient to suffer that kind of embarrassment. They figure things out over the course of the game, they tighten up holes, they find mismatches.

They gave Hollis-Jefferson enough defensive help to neutralize Towns on Monday — the big man made just five field goals — and when Wolves guard D’Angelo Russell started to heat up and score in bursts, the Raptors came up with a way to deny him the ball. And after playing loose in that first half, with 14 turnovers against 10 from Minnesota, Toronto had just four turnovers in the closing 24 minutes, while forcing 13.

This was a smart team forced into weird lineups that eventually managed to sort itself out. Last week they blitzed the Indiana Pacers in the closing couple of minutes to overcome a 10-point deficit. Against Brooklyn on the weekend they started a backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis — both undrafted — and pulled out a road win. On Monday they mostly didn’t play a centre against one of the game’s most talented young centres.

Sure, why not? Might as well keep on defying logic.

“I don’t think it surprises anybody,” said Nurse matter-of-factly.

At this point, no.

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Penny Oleksiak back to lead Canada in Tokyo pool

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Penny Oleksiak, the first Canadian to win four medals at a Summer Olympics, will lead a Canadian swimming team eager to build on their efforts in Rio de Janeiro at next month’s Tokyo Games.

Swimming Canada unveiled a 26-member squad (16 women, 10 men) on Thursday that is a mix of experience and youth that officials hope is capable of improving on the six medals won in Rio, the country’s best haul in the pool since the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

“I think the mix of veteran leaders and new faces is awesome,” said Kylie Masse, a bronze medallist in the 100 metres backstroke in Rio and one of 10 returning Olympians. “That’s kind of how sport works, there are always older and younger athletes, and it’s a great dynamic to have.”

Leading the charge at the 2016 Rio Games was Oleksiak, who became Canada’s youngest Olympic champion winning gold in the 100m freestyle as a 16-year-old, while also grabbing silver in the 100m butterfly and two relay bronze.

The stage is set for a new star to emerge in Tokyo in 14-year-old Summer McIntosh, who edged Oleksiak in the 200m freestyle at the trials and breezed to victory in the 800m free.

At the other end of the experience and age spectrum is 37-year-old Brent Hayden, who came out of retirement to earn a spot on his fourth Olympic team, becoming the oldest Canadian Olympic swimmer in history.

Bronze medallist in the 100m freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics, Hayden clinched his spot with a win in the 50m freestyle at the Canadian trials that wrapped up on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)

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Sinclair to lead Canadian women’s team in her fourth Olympics

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Christine Sinclair, the all-time international goal-scoring record holder, was named to her fourth Olympic squad on Wednesday and will headline a Canadian roster at the Tokyo Games that features a mix of veterans and youth.

Led by Sinclair, whose 186 goals for her country are the most by a female or male soccer player worldwide, Canada won medals at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and was the only nation to make the podium in both competitions.

“I am looking forward to doing whatever I can to help take this team back to the podium and make history again,” said Canadian captain Sinclair. “Our team is in a good spot, we are excited, we are hungry and we are ready to go.”

The 18-player roster features 12 members of the squad that competed at the 2016 Rio Games while a quintet including Vanessa Gilles, Jayde Riviere, Julia Grosso, Adriana Leon, and Evelyne Viens will be making their Olympic debuts.

Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan travelled to Rio in 2016 as an alternate.

Canada will kick off their Tokyo 2020 journey when they face Japan on July 21 and continue Group E play against Chile on July 24 and Britain on July 27.

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)

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Which of the Canadians Picked in the 2021 NFL Draft Will Thrive This Season?

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It was a good NFL Draft for Canadian players in 2021.

Some four stars from north of the border were selected by NFL franchises in the free agency pick ‘em, and that is tied as the highest number of Canadians drafted in the 85-year history of the event.

Of course, the hope is that these young talents are more than just filler and roster depth, but can any of the quartet make the breakthrough into the big time?

Here’s a look at which of the NFL’s newest Canadian additions can shine in 2021/22.

Jevon Holland

The defensive back was the number 36 pick in the Draft by the Miami Dolphins, who beat off a number of rivals in the hunt for the Coquitlam native.

A versatile defender, Holland is a former Jim Thorpe Award semi-finalist thanks to his exploits in the NCAA back in 2019 with the University of Oregon.

He sat out the 2020 campaign, but representatives from dozens of NFL teams were in town to watch Holland go through his paces at the Oregon Pro Day.

The 21-year-old is following in the footsteps of his father Robert, who turned out for the Detroit Lions, and he is expected to force his way into the starting line-up at the Dolphins. And, who knows, maybe Holland could go all the way in his first season, with Miami priced at +2500 in the Super Bowl 2022 American football odds.

Benjamin St-Juste

When you’re six foot three, 205 pounds and still able to run 40 yards in 4.51 seconds, it goes without saying that you have the physical credentials to succeed in the NFL.

Benjamin St-Juste is the man that can, and he will bolster the roster at a Washington Football Team that will be looking to improve upon their playoff showing in 2020.

The 23-year-old may only have been a third-round pick, but he comes with a burgeoning reputation thanks to a successful time at the University of Minnesota. An All-Big Ten special mention in 2019, more than 50 NFL recruitment personnel attended the college’s pro day – largely to catch a glimpse of St-Juste going through his paces.

Both Brian Gutekunst and Jon Robinson made the trip but, in the end, it was Washington who snapped up the powerhouse from the Draft.

Chuba Hubbard

The third Canadian to be drafted in 2021 was Chuba Hubbard, who became the first Canadian running back to be selected from the Draft in 25 years.

It’s the Carolina Panthers who have taken a chance on the 22-year-old and with his credentials, you can see why. Hubbard finished eighth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy in 2019 after a stellar campaign – he served up 2,094 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, an NCAA best. He was named the Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

While running backs are not the hottest of properties in the Draft, Hubbard provably has the talent to cross into the end zone with regularity – the Panthers might just have got their hands on an unheralded gem here.

With these three Canadians taking the step up to the NFL, the future of the sport north of the border looks in safe hands.

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